New Delhi: Sandeep Goyal smiles grimly to himself these days when he reads the latest chapter in the all-too-public brawl between broadcaster New Delhi Television Ltd (NDTV) and TAM Media Pvt. Ltd, the company that compiles television ratings.

A decade ago, Goyal was chief executive officer (CEO) at Zee, the Subhash Chandra-owned Hindi entertainment channel, which had yielded the No. 1 spot to Star Plus the year before. Back in 2001, Goyal said he was given evidence that the confidential list of households with people meters was being hawked around, sparking a fight between Zee and TAM that went nowhere.

Zee withdrew from the TAM surveys in protest, but had to fall in line because advertisers use the data to figure out the channels in which they should buy airtime.

Martin Sorrell, founder and CEO of WPP on 24 August accused NDTV of kicking up a fuss for a pay-off. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

While NDTV promoter Prannoy Roy hasn’t personally entered the fight, Sir Martin Sorrell, founder and CEO of WPP, waded into battle in an interview with Mint on 24 August, accusing the Indian company of kicking up a fuss for a pay-off.

“Their lawyers called us and asked if we would discuss a settlement," Sorrell said. “I said there is no question of settlement. This whole thing is mischievous, designed to elicit some financial response from us."

NDTV fired off a riposte on 25 August, saying this was “completely untrue". There was no such approach after the complaint was filed and communicated. In fact, it was his own CEO, Eric Salama, the CEO of Kantar, a WPP company, who sent a confidential mail to NDTV on 8 August, suggesting a meeting if NDTV would “halt litigation".

The last on this war of words is yet to be heard.

To be sure, this is not the first rumpus around TAM’s India operations. When Zee released the list of classified panel homes in 2001, the weekly magazine Outlook reported the story and featured people in these panel homes.

“The breach continues and the industry attitude remains unchanged," said Goyal, who now runs his own mobile solutions company, having sold his stake in Dentsu India, the joint venture with the Japanese advertising agency. “Nobody backed Zee and I don’t see many rallying behind NDTV either."

The only difference today is that the number of people meters has risen from 3,000 to 8,150. The TAM ratings system in India was launched as an industry standard in 1998, replacing the diary method followed earlier.

Alleged corruption in the TAM ratings system and processes in India is at the heart of NDTV’s current complaint in the New York court. Declining to comment for this story, NDTV said the details of its complaints are available in the lawsuit. The company had earlier stated that legal action became its last resort when it saw that the research companies were not making any effort to clean up the system.

A statement from WPP on 27 August said, “It is not true that, as NDTV has previously stated, ‘nothing’ was being done about NDTV’s concerns... Stringent measures have been taken to protect the panel against repeated attempts at tampering by unknown persons. Discussions continue, as they have for some time, with industry stakeholders to ensure quality and reliability of the data."

Dealing with the fixers

Not surprisingly, India is not the only country where broadcasters are battling the rating system.

Salama, who runs services such as TAM in several markets from the UK and Spain to China and Russia, said that no broadcaster is happy when its ratings are going down.

Media experts in India say smaller sample sizes can be compromised easily. Lynn De Souza, chairperson of Lintas Media Group, said the red flags she raised some years ago were about sampling errors arising from a very low representation of overall TV viewing, given the low number of metered homes.

Since then, television has grown complex, with new genres and regions opening up and, in turn, requiring the scope and scale of measurement to keep pace. “What has happened since then is the apparent increase in non-sampling errors. This is a consequence of very few meters since influencing a small number of homes can lead to a big change in ratings if the field monitoring software does not pick up the variance in time," De Souza added.

The pay-offs of any kind of fixing are considerable.

Goyal agreed. “Without getting into the complexities and nuances of measurement, let me say that very roughly, on a scale of 100 homes if you could fix three in the right markets, you could get a 3% viewership share or a rating of 3. How difficult can that be?" he said.

TAM, meanwhile, is losing patience with the allegations of corruption.

“This war of words is not leading anywhere. If we can work together to weed out corruption it will be great for the industry," said L.V. Krishnan, CEO of TAM Media.

Praveen Tripathi, CEO of consulting firm Magic9 Media and Consumer Knowledge, agreed. “It is not fair to make the bribe taker culpable and let the bribe giver go scot free. If someone is receiving a bribe, someone is paying it, too. Shouldn’t the industry be taking punitive action?" he said.

Tripathi understands the perils of television research considering he spearheaded INTAM, the TV currency launched by ORG-MARG in the mid-1990s when he was director at MARG.

“It is not that the industry does not know what it should be doing. We have just chosen to do nothing, other than taking occasional potshots at TAM. TAM or its CEO L.V. Krishnan cannot be the custodian of everybody’s integrity," he added.

A divided front

But it can be receptive to complaints, said a TV executive.

Jawahar Goel, managing director of Dish TV India Ltd, the DTH company of the Zee Group, insists TAM has been deaf to broadcasters’ complaints. “The company has a tendency to push back whenever we air our grievances. The executives do not hear us out," he said. Yet, others pin the blame on the entire media industry.

Then, one problem could be the divided front TV channels present.

“I don’t think the broadcasters present a united front... Growth and competitive pressures are high in the broadcasting business, which is quite a young industry. Distribution issues and regulatory controls on advertising time make the dependence on ratings more than it should be," said De Souza.

Indeed, one effort by news channels to agree to a monthly rating system instead of the current weekly one fell flat. The idea behind pushing for monthly ratings was that they would capture more news events and improve news content.

“It was meant to prevent editors from putting Rakhi Sawant on the channel the morning after the ratings are released, which may have shown a dip in their weekly GRPs (gross rating points)," said the CEO of a Hindi news channel who did not want to be identified.

When TAM was launched, the technical committee of the joint industry body (JIB), composed of representatives from the Indian Society of Advertisers (ISA), the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) and the Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI), took active interest in the viewership processes and ratings.

TAM was required to submit panel health parameters regularly to the committee, which kept an eye on incidence of deviant viewing in the TAM panel. These reports were reviewed every month and TAM was asked for specific clarifications. Over the years, JIB dissolved to make way for BARC (Broadcasting Audience Research Council), which is yet crystallize.

“I cannot say for sure whether any industry body has supervised or monitored TAM data, the panel health or methods in the last eight years," said Tripathi, who became a part of JIB when he moved from MARG to advertising agency Starcom.

Unclear signals

Raj Nayak, CEO of TV channel Colors, agrees that the industry should come forward to take collective responsibility and work closely with the ratings agency to thrash out issues and concerns to make it more robust, transparent and dynamic.

However, TAM’s CEO Krishnan is not sure if the industry will speak in one voice as there are several industry bodies, including NBA, IBF, ISA and AAAI that he has to deal with.

“Often the signals from different industry bodies are not clear. For instance, news channels may not be too keen to increase the panel homes in rural India as it may increase their carriage fee costs, but Doordarshan and others Hindi entertainment channels are," said Krishnan. “In fact, TAM had submitted proposals to Doordarshan on increasing the sample size to cover rural markets in 2007 and 2010, but hasn’t received any response. The industry has to come to an understanding and give us feedback on what it wants."

Meanwhile, TAM has already presented a six-point agenda in its meeting with the advertising industry associations where it had mentioned the appointment of a security officer for security of panel homes. Critics of TAM have argued in favour of a third party auditor comprising industry stakeholders, advertisers, broadcasters and agencies.

“We have an internal audit, but we are open to a third party audit, which we also conveyed in our meetings with ISA-AAAI and separately to NBA. Also, In the next 60 days, TAM will have a third party audit machinery in place," said Krishnan.

The agency is also open to expanding its sample and plans to cover towns with a population of less than 100,000. By the end of the year, TAM will deploy more meters to take the figure from 8,150 to 10,000.

Funding for this expansion remains an issue. On an industry platform, Tripathi had earlier suggested that India could adopt the model followed by the South African Advertising Research Foundation where advertisers pay a surcharge on the ads that they release and this money is used by an industry body to fund media research.

Then, it may not be easy to brush aside a matter that has already reached a court in the US. But Goyal is not sure if a solution is immediately in sight. In his view, the status quo also helps some stakeholders in the industry. For one, market leaders may not be complaining. Secondly, tighter security that eliminates external influence on the panel homes may even reflect on genre shares. “What if news channels see their share jump to 20% instead of the current 4%?" he asked.

That is not all. If the release of the data is suspended, as has been demanded by NDTV, and even by NBA now in its note to the ministry of information and broadcasting, Goyal suspects that advertising rates may get revised.

“We in India deliver the largest number of viewers at the cheapest cost. I am sure if TAM were to shut down and start again or if another currency is launched, advertising rates will shoot up," said Goyal, still smiling grimly.

shuchi.b@livemint.com

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